Across the 10 stanzas of Sidney Alexander’s poem “Intellectual to Worker,” the eponymous intellectual desperately attempts to “talk…straight” to the worker across the table from him, his “comrade.” But the poet’s lines keep “coiling back” on him. He knows “a couplet’s curl, a twist of phrase, a syllogistic flip” are unlikely to connect with the man who lays straight, functional, load-bearing lines: “I know… to you that’s spider-web so thin, / a trillion strands of it twirled cable-wise / won’t hold the bridge.” Frustrated, the artist curses every “string of words” he’s tried, with its “damned snakish trick of / winding…up into a sphere / of logic that went nowhere.”1
Alexander’s poem indexes a concern given voice across the pages of The New Masses, the leftist periodical where it appeared in 1937—about art’s (in)ability to communicate with the “millions unlettered”2 in it and especially European modernism’s “unintelligibility” to a mass American audience. Ad Reinhardt, who provided artwork and criticism for the periodical from 1936, later recalled that this “was a central problem in the ’30s…can art do anything? Or can a painter by way of painting influence people?”3
Many on the left believed the straightest talk could be done by the joint forces of documentary photography and the newspaper. Critic Elizabeth McCausland celebrated “the daily papers [and] their news photographs” in the pages of The New Masses for their “capacity for communication in a direct and popular sense” as opposed to the “synthetic oasis of non-intelligibility or non-communication” that was modernist abstraction.4 In order for art to reach the bridge-builders, Alexander’s poet-speaker determines he “straighten” the “circle…to a line” that, like a bridge, would lead to his reader, deliver the goods.5
Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, WPA investment had made it possible to imagine the length of actual bridges spanning the “distance from New York to Youngstown, O.”6 But in his Newsprint Collage (1940), rather than draw a straight line from art world to steel belt, Reinhardt seems to embrace the problem of Alexander’s intellectual: in it, the structures of bridges insist on tangling into a painterly web. Here and there, we can discern the textures of industrial labor—a truss or rivets, a crane hook, a worker operating a rig—“the idea of bridges,” as Reinhardt once put it.7 But for the most part the artist has snipped press photographs into abstract configurations of light and dark, rendering their original subjects illegible. In five collage studies for paintings(1938 – 1939, MoMA), the artist had suspended abstract colorful cut-outs along black lines connecting compositional zones. He now finds these lines in the tracery of wrought iron, steel girders, and the criss-crossing cables of the city that had captured the attention of documentary photographers like Berenice Abbott (whose Changing New York series McCausland lauded in 1937), conjoining them in a new linear network. Reinhardt thus shelves an avant-garde tradition of photomontage (from Höch to Heartfield) that had relied on syntactical distinguishability for legibility; each shard in the collage frustrates identification, then quickly shuttles the eye along its network.
As Reinhardt deploys photomechanical source materials only to obscure them, he operates on the fulcrum of his own firm distinction between “picture” and “painting.” The picture, Reinhardt explains, “has subject matter, tells some story.” It is also, for him, an industrial and functional product: it is “photographic or cinematographic,” and the “best and most effective pictures” are produced by what Reinhardt deems the “picture industries”—newspapers, magazines, advertising, cinema.8 Newsprint Collage takes aim at both the pictorial logic of industry and the industrial logic of picturing: It short-circuits the newspaper’s ability to serve as an “easy…bridge”9 to communication through illustration, and robs the depicted bridges of their purchase on audience outreach. If, in Joseph Stella’s paintings of The Brooklyn Bridge (1936), the cables of the suspension bridge receded and rose to a triumphant, light-filled vanishing point, Reinhardt presses bridge parts into service as materials for drawing, returning the optimistic lines and wires that had come to symbolize connection, communication, and utility in the 1930s as a pile of tangled wires and insisting upon the documentary photograph as so much pictorial matter. Hemmed in by an internal frame of black construction paper, these lines “lead nowhere.” As though in retort to the New Masses critic who asked, in a review of Picasso’s 1939 MoMA retrospective, whether Cubist “painting as architecture” might be “put to work” to reach new audiences, Reinhardt transmutes architecture back into the elements of painting—into a post-Cubist pictorial scaffolding that, as Maude Riley remarked in a review, “could have no interest for a daily paper,” in spite of the artist’s day job at PM.10
The “pressure” on the artist of the 1930s to “relate himself to society” never ceased to exert influence on Reinhardt’s practice.11 Paradoxically, it drives his art-as-art dogma and undergirds his commitment to artistic autonomy. Where his peers turned to realism and documentary for greater legibility, Reinhardt held to George Bernard Shaw’s words that the artist should be “unreadable in all ages.”
The black lines of the “How to Look” cartoons Reinhardt would supply for PM purport to confer artistic literacy by guiding their reader swiftly through 20th-century art. But in Newsprint Collage, Reinhardt reminds us that “there are no easy keys, bridges, or translations” to abstract art, “no matter how easily the mass media…make them available.” The painter, said Reinhardt, studies what “the elements of painting” mean by themselves, “what they did once in pictures, what they could say out of pictures” and abstraction was painting “relieved of its ‘picture purpose.’” By 1952, Reinhardt felt “no need to bring a ‘painting-reason’ and a ‘picture-purpose’ together any more.” But in 1940, collage provides him a means of negation by which to sever one from the other, a means to “relieve” pictures of their “picture purpose.” In Newsprint Collage, we see Reinhardt the newspaper man shedding his own daytime obligations to picture purpose. Potentially, too, then, it could relieve the worker of his daily function—not by “talking straight,” leaving him untransformed across the table but, paradoxically, by “demand[ing] more” of him: “more participation, more awareness.”12
1. Sidney Alexander, “Intellectual to Worker,” The New Masses (February 16, 1937), p. 13.
2. Isabel Cooper, “Picasso,” The New Masses (November 28, 1939), p. 28.
3. Harlan Phillips and Ad Reinhardt, Oral history interview with Ad Reinhardt, circa 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, <http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ad-reinhardt-12891>.
4. See Elizabeth Noble, “Photography,” The New Masses (April 6, 1937), p. 27.
5. Alexander, p. 13.
6. “What America Gets for Its WPA Money,” The New Masses (July 4, 1939).
7. Reinhardt obliquely recalls that “the whole idea of bridges … was … an issue in the ‘30s all the time.” See Phillips and Reinhardt, ca. 1964.
8. Ad Reinhardt, “[Abstraction vs. Illustration],” Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose. Berkeley: University of California, 1991, p. 47.
9. “Is there a new academy?,” Art as Art, p. 208.
10. Cooper, p. 28.
11. Harlan Phillips and Ad Reinhardt, Oral history interview.
12. Reinhardt, “Stuart Davis,” The New Masses (November 27, 1945), p. 15. See also “[The Fine Artist and the War Effort],“ p. 173, where Reinhardt writes that the “the illustrative picture that pretended to be more than illustration or decoration prohibited a more profound appreciation of art on the part of the spectator by not demanding a firsthand and comprehensive participation (and preparation) for its meaning.”
TESSA PANETH-POLLAK is a Ph.D. candidate in Art & Archaeology at Princeton University.